For several years, Derek Larson has approached painting, sculpture, and video from oblique angles, creating works that dance erratically between these media. The Yale grad and recent Hudgens Prize finalist, who is based in Statesboro, Georgia, turns his eye toward midcentury Color Field painting in his exhibition “Saf Alef,” on view at Mulherin + Pollard in New York through January 14. The exhibition’s title, borrowed from a 1959 Morris Louis painting of the same name, frames the work in relation to the specific materiality of paint.
As visitors enter the modestly sized gallery, they are doused by light as they pass through one of Larson’s characteristic video projection/painting/sculpture hybrids. Wormwood Tea comprises a black painted panel leaning against the wall, bordered on the bottom by bundles of plaid and herringbone fabric and crowned by an aluminum panel in the shape of two smiling slimy faces. A projector throws light against a jerry-rigged mirror and onto the screen, yielding an acid-tinged animation of paintlike blobs descending ad infinitum. This combination of slapdash assembly and garish, glitchy imagery is characteristic of Larson’s work.
The artist makes the most of the small space. The show is peppered with fun spatial quirks. Double Bind, which was shown at the Hudgens Center last summer, is an imposing jagged work that sits dead center in the gallery and allows only a narrow passage to its left. Wedged between opposing walls, the work partitions the gallery and highlights its own ramshackle construction as the viewer crosses over to the other side. Projected onto the piece’s front side is a video showing the torso of a faceless man suspended amid a cloud of pixelated fruit, leaves, flowers and un-identifiable junk, flickering and floating. The video repeats silently on a short loop, generating a strange quietude at odds with the video’s chromatic palette.
A sense of ambivalence pervades the work as the artist liberally appropriates the images and forms of disparate aesthetic realms, ranging from high modernist abstraction to Windows 98-era screen savers. This ambivalence is especially pronounced in the artist’s engagement with Color Field painting. In addition to more overt, irreverent references to Louis’s poured paint, there are some subtle resonances between the painter’s material concerns and Larson’s application of the medium of light. Some of the most productive moments in the show occur when Larson allows light to spill over the edges of the shaped panels and onto an adjacent wall or accompanying monochrome panel. Never quite hitting a critical note in relation to Louis, the work vacillates between caricature and homage.
Larson’s wooden screens are more than passive surfaces for his animations. Their cartoonish contours shape their contents both formally and conceptually. Insinuating their edges into the work, Larson creates a tension between his undulating pixelated animations and the static two-dimensional forms that attempt to contain them. His video loops take their cue from animated .gifs in their brevity, those ubiquitous Internet artifacts that hover nauseatingly somewhere between static image and video.
Nausea is not a sensation Larson shies away from. The work in “Saf Alef,” soaked in acrid magentas and cyans, embraces dissonance for sure. But it’s not without its own particular charm. Its harshness is offset by the weirdly comforting presence of cheery slime-gobs as well as some familiar cartoon forms.
A small print titled Picno combines a grid of Garfields with the cover text from Paul Virilio’s The Aesthetics of Disappearance. Referring to Virilio’s notion of “picnolepsy,” a condition characterized by persistent minute lapses in perception, the work rather overtly references a critical framework that may undergird Larson’s fragmented imagery. Curiously though, and perhaps due to its explicitness, Picno’s critical implications seem to fade back into the mix of influences at play in Larson’s work. That said, it’s likely for the better that the work should remain loose, as this artist seems to thrive best in the midst of a mess of sources. The result is a body of work that’s putrid, playful, and suffused with joyful abandon.
Tom Berlangero is a writer, designer, artist, and improviser. He lives in Atlanta, where he likes to hike, ride bikes & cook new meals to feel real. He is a recent transplant from New York, where he earned a BFA in painting and sculpture from the State University of New York at Purchase and studied improv comedy.